Baba Yaga's Assistant is the superlative new graphic novel written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll, who brought us the eerily wonderful graphic Through the Woods. I am a HUGE fan of fairy tales (my secret dream is to get a PhD in fairy tales and write a killer dissertation...) and always excited to see a story that features one of the lesser known (to Americans) characters like Baba Yaga in a story. Most recently, Baba Yaga has appeared in Gregory Maguire's epic Russian fairy tale mash-up, The Egg and the Spoon. Baba Yaga also turns out in Michael Buckley's brilliant Sisters Grimm series and she appears in one of the wonderful Tashi chapter books that are a must read.
Baba Yaga, for those of you who don't know her, is a witch from Slavic folklore. She lives in the forest in a house that walks on chicken legs and she flies around in a giant mortar and pestle. She is older than anyone knows, has iron teeth, and her favorite thing to eat is children. In fact, the fence around her house is decorated with the skulls of children she turned into a meal. Baba Yaga is known to set impossible tasks for her captives, Vasilisa (known as "the Beautiful" and "the Brave" in various tales) being the best known. McCoola brings Baba Yaga into the modern world in Baba Yaga's Assistant, where Masha is the main character. Masha lost her mother when she was very young and, more recently, the beloved grandmother Irina, who raised her and read her fairy tales at bedtime. As Carroll portrays her, Masha is a tween or young teen, not frumpy, but not traditionally beautiful either. She has the short brown bob that seems to be the standard for feisty young heroines and she is solidly built. She is also in pain and grieving, even more so as her father is introducing her to his fiance and her daughter for the first time.
McCoola weaves in flashbacks of Grandmother Irina reading to Masha, passages that include panels of illustrations that look like they were lifted from a book of Russian fairy tales, borders and all, with the present day drama of the soon-to-be-stepmother and her ferocious daughter, Dani. When Masha sees a help wanted ad that reads, "Must have skills in hauling, obeying orders, cooking and cleaning. Magical talent a bonnus. Must be good with heights. Enter Baba Yaga's house to apply," she decides it's time to find her own family, since her father has found his and it doesn't seem to include her. Masha heads into the woods and, thanks to all the stories her Irina read her, is able to enter Baba Yaga's house and even complete the tasks set before her. Masha's real challenge comes when Baba Yaga returns to her home on chicken legs with a cage full of bad children and orders Masha to cook them, instructing her, "Roasted, broiled or baked. Anything but poached. I do hate it when they're rubbery." Masha is surprised to find Dani in the cage with two other children, although not really. Baba Yaga is fondest of children who behave badly and it is in this that Masha figures out how to save the children.
Masha also finds that she does indeed have magical talent, passed on to her by Grandma Irina, and this helps her out as well. Baba Yaga herself never feels downright evil (as she appears in other versions of her story) in Baba Yaga's Assistant she is more calculatedly evil from a distance as Masha comes into her own, as an assistant and as a person. In fact, I was occasionally reminded of the excellent graphic novel that came out earlier this year and also features a young lady looking to be assistant to an evil villain, Nimona. What I appreciate most about Baba Yaga's Assistant is McCoola's skill at writing a complex family dynamic that feels familiar to fans of fairy tales (mother dies, evil stepmother and step-siblings arrive) but is also modern. In a few pages, McCoola develops Masha's father, a scientist who studies plants and soil, in a way that feels complete and understandable. In his grief, he has buried himself in his work and left Masha to be loved and comforted by someone better equipped to do those things, her grandmother. Out of his loneliness comes his relationship with Jenny and her daughter and the chance to move forward. While McCoola never makes it seem like Masha is holding her father back from his healing and happiness, she does make Masha's choice at the end of the book wholly believable and positive - a step forward toward finding a new family for Masha as well. McCoola and Carroll also make me yearn VERY MUCH to know more about Masha's story and find out where she and Baba Yaga are headed to as this magnificent story comes to a close...
Source: Review Copy
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